By Alan Neilson Jul 6, 2022
Believing himself betrayed by either Ellen or the boy, Grimes is in a bad emotional and psychological state as he sits in his house when he hears the mob approaching, which causes him to flee. In this heightened state he drives the boy down the cliff, who falls to his death.
The question which the director has to address is, to what extent is Grimes responsible? Is Grimes simply an innocent victim of an intolerant community who judge his actions in the most negative way simply because he is a loner, a misfit, a person who they do not understand?
Or is Grimes a violent, vicious brute who beats and terrorizes his apprentice, and who in a state a of terror is unable to negotiate the cliff? Is it possible that Grimes pushes the child, deliberately or accidentally, causing him to fall to his death?
Curran’s Thoughtful Direction Lacks Color
Of course, reality rarely offers up such simple answers, and Paul Curran’s production of “Peter Grimes” for Venice’s La Fenice does not attempt to provide a simple one. Rather he focuses on the complex relationship between Grimes, whom he portrays as irascible, hot-tempered and violent, and a community who are unable to understand him, who shun him, judge him and are at least partly responsible for creating the man Grimes has turned out to be. There are no innocents in this production, except for the unfortunate boy, who is a victim of both the community’s intolerance and hypocrisy, and of Grimes’ vicious nature.
Curran took every opportunity to highlight Grimes’ unpleasant disposition, and he was certainly not portrayed as a hero or even an anti-hero, despite his cathartic decision to end his own life. Likewise, the community, were oppressive, self-righteous, judgmental, and took every opportunity to crowd in around Grimes, creating an oppressive atmosphere which was magnified by Gary McCann’s dark, bleak set designs. This Borough was definitely not a place a person would choose to live.
If McCann’s sets successfully created the necessary menacing, claustrophobic atmosphere, they were not in any way eye-catching or imaginative. Apart from the scene located in Grimes’ house, the different sets consisted of little more than a repositioning of metallic-looking sheets. References to the sea, which is fundamental to the drama, were largely underplayed, restricted to bluish projections, the occasional prop and Balstrode’s captain’s uniform, and a sou’wester worn by Grimes when he entered the pub. Overall, the scenography was largely disappointing, lacking in color to the point of monotony, which Fabio Barettin’s lighting, being deliberately designed to accentuate the dark pervasive atmosphere, did little to improve.
The costumes also designed by McCann were far more interesting. Curran set the opera in the 1940s, the period in which the opera was written, to reflect the fact that the outsider is an ever present in society, a person whom communities are all too ready to condemn. The cast was provided with a variety of period clothing, often reflecting their specific roles, and were totally convincing, apart from the two scantily clad nieces, whose costumes were occasionally a little too risqué for a small town pub in 1940s Britain, even if they had just got out of bed.
Overall, and despite the staging’s shortcomings, Curran and his team served up a cogent and insightful reading which was dramatically taut and engaging.
Valčuha Sacrifices Beauty For Dramatic Affect
The musical side of the production was under the direction of Juraj Valčuha, who elicited a detailed, dramatically powerful, even aggressive, reading from the Orchestra del Teatro La Fenice that accentuated the the scores contrasts, often to the point of exaggeration, which nevertheless did support the intensity of Curran’s stage direction.
The storm in Act one, for example, was brilliantly animated, and captured its squally character perfectly. The downside of Valčuha’s reading, however, was the beauty of the score was compromised; the sound was too extreme, abrupt, often violent and too loud. Its deep textural qualities were often lost or distorted by dynamic imbalances within the orchestra, which promoted detail over balance.
The most disappointing aspect, however, was that there was no sense of the watery depths which, on so many levels, are fundamental to the opera; the Sea Interludes, which contain some of the most beautiful music Britten ever wrote, lost their allure and their significance. And such was Valčuha’s determination to play up the full dramatic energy of the music, he occasionally allowed the orchestra to dominate at the expense of the singers. It must be said, however, that at the final curtain, the audience responded very enthusiastically to his interpretation.
Excellent Singing From The Entire Cast
The cast were all in superb form. Led by tenor Andrew Staples in the title role, every singer without exception produced an excellent performance.
Staples’ Grimes was a hot-tempered, unpleasant character, with which it was difficult to sympathize. Increasingly condemned and shunned by the citizenry of the Borough, he became more isolated, aggressive, unhinged and consequently unlikeable, in what was a compelling and intense performance. Not only did he capture Grimes’ outward persona, but also he exposed his inner pain, with every gesture, every grimace carefully placed to highlight his torment.
His ability to inflect the vocal line with subtle and bold dynamic and emotional accents displayed real quality: his clumsy attempt to console the boy in Act three, as his own anxiety and rage increased as the mob approached, was as brilliant as it was painful to watch, as he gave voice to Grimes’ unstable and fast changing emotions.
The defining characteristic of Staples’ performance, however, was the sweet lyricism with which underlay his whole presentation, which was beautifully illustrated by his rendition of the aria “Now the Great Bear and Pleiades” which showed off his wonderful timbre, vocal clarity, expressivity and the ease with which he moved the voice.
It was a performance that will live long in the memory.
Ellen Orford was essayed by soprano Emma Bell, who did a fine job in drawing out the nuances and complexities of her relationship with Grimes; her compassion and loyalty, courage and love, as well as her underlying frustrations, and her fear of him and of what he might have done. She possesses a clear, well-grounded, versatile voice, with a strong piercing upper register, which she used intelligently to develop her character.
The opening scene of Act two, in which she confronts Grimes about his treatment of the boy, was particularly successful: pushing her voice forcefully and expressively she captured her growing anxiety, anger and fears with her intelligently crafted and perfectly controlled lines, rich in detail and emotional strength.
Soprano Rosalind Plowright, now well into her seventies, put in a superb performance as the village gossip Mrs Sedley. It was amazing to sit in the auditorium and listen to her sing with a voice which still retains the strength, versatility, firmness and expressivity that one would be pleased to hear from a singer half her age. Her Mrs Sedley was suitably vicious, a nasty piece of work, with an air of moral superiority. She also added a touch of humor to the role in playing up her discomfit at finding herself in a pub.
Bass-baritone Mark S. Doss created a strong, well-defined portrait of Captain Balstrode, in which he captured the nuances of the character, and his position within the community as a source of ballast. His exchange with Grimes at the end of Act one, scene one not only allowed him to show off the engaging quality of his voice with its rich timbre and commanding air, but illustrated perfectly his ability to develop sensitively crafted phrases that revealed his complex relationship with Grimes.
Baritone Alex Otterburn produced a vibrant performance as the sharp-witted Ned Keene, in which he convincingly developed his multi-layered character, blending the fun-loving, tolerant and helpful side of his nature with a hard-headed, impatient, cynical side. His centerpiece song “Old Joe’s gone fishing” was given a lyrically strong, confident rendition which successfully showed off his attractive voice.
Mr. Swallow, the coroner and mayor of the the Borough was played by Sion Goronwy, whose resonant bass, wonderfully clear articulation and powerful physique enabled him to dominate the proceedings in the courtroom, in which his contempt for Grimes was clearly manifested, a contempt which grew as the drama progressed.
Mezzo-soprano Sara Fulgoni cast as Auntie, the landlady of the local pub, was suitably busy and lively, producing a detailed and compelling performance.
Auntie’s two Nieces were played by sopranos Patricia Westley and Jessica Cale, both of whom put in strong performances. While they were suitably flirtatious and off-hand with the clients of ‘The Boar’ public house, they also managed to successfully capture the misery and reality of their jobs.
Cameron Becker was a suitably weak-willed hypocritical Bob Boles, whose drunken and lecherous antics, which were acted out convincingly, stood in stark contrast to his religious position. He possesses a sweet, versatile, attractive tenor which he employed successfully to develop his character, although the voice did appear a little stretched in the upper register on occasions.
Tenor Eamonn Mulhall nailed the role of the ineffectual Rector, whose only meaningful contribution is to suggest going to see Grimes in his house, which leads to the boy’s death. Mulhall managed in his short time on stage to capture perfectly his character’s self-importance and irrelevance with a nicely-sung and well-acted performance.
Bass-baritone Laurence Miekle in the minor role of Hobson made the most of the role with a strong performance.
The Coro del Teatro La Fenice under chorus master Alfonso Caiani produced an energetic, powerful performance, but like the orchestral interpretation it occasionally promoted dramatic effect at the expense of beauty, so that its interjections were sometimes a little abrupt and lost their allure. Its movement was expertly choreographed to intimidate and condemn Grimes, and to foster the oppressive atmosphere which pervaded the stage. Mention should also be given to its fine English pronunciation, which was clearly articulated, with only a slight Italian intonation.
At the final curtain, the production was met with rapturous applause from the audience, which one would suggest was largely for the dramatic intensity and the clarity of the representation which Curran and Valčuha managed to create, and of course, for the singers’ excellent performances. And it was thoroughly deserved. It was an engrossing presentation, despite its faults, of which Valčuha’s reading, which failed to reveal the beauty of Britten’s score, was the most disappointing.